A couple weeks ago, I celebrated Earth Day in the most Floridian way I knew how: I grabbed a girlfriend and hit the coast. You can read about our adventures in Seaside here. You might be wondering what that has to do with Italian drinks. But my day trip got me thinking about Italia, which is admittedly never far from my mind. Between lounging on the beach and checking out the town, we stopped for a few Aperol Spritz.
The Spritz is hyper popular in Italy but virtually unknown here in the States. So, I thought I’d share a little bit about this vibrant orange drink with y’all, and a little about Italian drinks in general.
Italian Drinks: It’s Not About Getting Drunk
First things first – while these Italian drinks are definitely alcoholic and you can get drunk off them, that’s not what they’re for. They’re for digestion.
I know, sexy, right?
Hear me out. The Italians have a long-standing love affair with the art of digestion. There are a ton of social rules about food: you can’t drink a cappuccino after noon, eggs are not a breakfast food, drinking milk will give you allergies. For the most part, these rules are unspoken. But if you break them, your Italian friends will be affronted and they will let you know.
Fortunately for us all, one of these many digestive rules includes alcohol. It goes a little something like this: “Thou shalt not consume dinner unless thou hast enjoyed at least one aperitivo. And thou shalt not leave the table after dinner if thou hast not enjoyed at least one digestivo.”
Mandatory alcohol? Uh, yes please.
So, what’s the deal with drinks and digestion?
The belief is that the aperitivo will prep your stomach for digestion. Because dinner is often a lengthy affair in Italy, they assume that your stomach needs some help. Aperitivi are generally made with bitters of some kind, although I’ve seen prosecco and dry white wines served as aperitivi as well. Usually, the aperitivo is enjoyed at a bar. Olives, salty crackers, and other finger foods often accompany your drink. When everyone is nice and tipsy – uh, I mean, ready for digestion – the party moves on to dinner.
With dinner, you can drink whatever you want. My drink of choice is water or wine, depending on how much money I’ve got on me. Most Italians will drink the same, although they like acqua con gas, aka sparkling water. That’s a hard pass for me. During the meal, digestion’s more about what you eat and the order in which you do it. Once you’re done with the seemingly endless courses, it’s time for after dinner drinks.
Digestivi come in a wide variety, as diverse as the Italian landscape. Some of them might be familiar to you, like grappa or limoncello. Others, not so much. At a dinner party, my friend Silvia introduced me to some lesser known digestivi. She hails from the mountainous north of Italy and always brings back some frangelico and genepy. They both have an herbaceous flavor, a little bit like distilled mountain air. What all digestivi have in common is that the alcohol content is sky high! You’ll be given what looks like a shot glass, but don’t knock it back. Trust me, you want to sip it.
My Favorite of the Italian Drinks: The Spritz!
So, Aperol Spritz is an aperitivo. Aperol is a bitter orange liqueur. To turn it into a Spritz, simply add prosecco and maybe some club soda, if you’re really not looking to get drunk. Garnish with an orange wedge and voila! You are now fully equipped to bartend any Italian Happy Hour. Except they call it aperitivo.
Of course, I’m sure you’d have to learn how to mix a few other drinks but for the most part, you’d be slinging Aperol Spritz all evening. It’s a ridiculously popular drink in Italy and for good reason. The mix of bitter, sweet, and refreshing is just weird enough, just perfect enough to make you order a second glass.
I remember the first Aperol Spritz I ever had. I’d been in Italy for about a week and I’d been drinking, but only at night, after dinner. Finally, my friends and I went out for pre-dinner drinks. I didn’t know what to get, but as I looked around, I saw a lot of bright orange. So my girlfriends and I ordered what everyone else was having. And I’ve never looked back.
But… does it work?
I don’t really know.
The Italians will tell you that yes, of course it works! This obsession with digestive health, well, it’s a way of life. It’s just another piece of the fascinating puzzle that is Italian culture. A culture that says it’s okay to slow down and enjoy life. It says food should be good, every facet of it, the whole experience. And they’re some of the healthiest people I’ve ever met. They’re also some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. I think that might be the secret.
At the end of the day, it’s charming, so who cares if it’s pseudoscience? Good food and good company? I’ll drink to that.